How to Order Dim Sum in Chinatown San Francisco
Last weekend, Matt, Evelyn and I spent a whirlwind 48 hours in San Francisco.
We put on quite a few miles on a quest to hit every famous spot in the city before the weekend was over. One of those must-see spots on the list: Chinatown!
We (and by ‘we’, I mean ‘I’) really only had one goal for visiting Chinatown: enjoy traditional dim sum for the very first time.
I know, I know. Never had dim sum? Like ever? Yeah…I know. It was about damn time.
Finding a good dim sum restaurant in an area so heavily marketed to tourists seemed like a daunting task. And being dim sum newbies, I didn’t know exactly how it worked. I knew I certainly wasn’t going to be able to ask many questions once we got there. So I did what I always do when I don’t know something…I googled it. 🙂
I found out that not all dim sum is created equal. Some places will offer cheap “all you can eat dim sum”, but that surely isn’t very authentic (or good). Other smaller places allow you to order by piece at the register and take your food to go. Not a bad option, I thought, but it sounded like a lot of pressure for us newbies (fyi: Good Mong Kok Bakery in Chinatown was a frequent recommendation for this type of place). Our last option was a traditional sit down restaurant where you order by dish (with each dish having 3-4 pieces). This sounded much more enjoyable and less stressful for our first experience.
Of the many places I found recommended, Great Eastern Restaurant, located in the heart of Chinatown on Jackson Street, came up again and again. Aside from actually churning out some pretty awesome food (a rarity in Chinatown apparently), its other claim to fame is that Obama ate lunch there a few years ago. So I figured it had to be good, right?
We got there around 10:30 am on Sunday and the restaurant (which opens at 10 for dim sum) was nearly full. But we were the only ones in the lobby waiting for a table and after only a 5 minute wait, we were seated in the middle of the formal dining room. I could count on exactly one finger how many other white tourists were in there, which confirmed I’d made the right choice!
As we situated ourselves among the other Chinese families, we felt slightly intimidated. But the numbered photo menu quickly eased any of our worries. Matt sat back and let me take full reign of the selections.
This being our first dim sum experience, Great Eastern made the ordering process super easy on us. On the table along with the photo menu was a pencil and full paper menu with a list of all the items they offered. Similar to a sushi menu, we just ticked how many of each item we wanted, and the waiter whisked it away to the kitchen.
Then one by one, a little lady would stop by our table with a tray of food, checking to see which (if any) of the items she was carrying belonged to us. As she set down the steamer baskets and accompanying sauces, she would mark our check based on the size of the dish.
We ordered an assortment of safe, but varied items (sorry, no cold chicken paws for us this time). 6 items seemed just right for the two and a half of us: steamed pork buns, potstickers, vegetable spring rolls, shrimp and cilantro dumplings, baked pork buns and custard sponge cake came out one after the other, and we got a little more excited with each new arrival.
A few tips: don’t be afraid to ask for a fork, it’s perfectly acceptable to do so. If the lady asks you to “cut”, just say yes (she’ll cut certain pieces in half to make them easier to eat). And you can add any additional dishes along the way, so start out small if you’re unsure; you can always add to your order later.
Prices for each dish ranged from $4-6 depending on the size and our total bill came to a whopping $37, by far our cheapest meal in San Francisco! I even managed to turn skeptical Matt into a dim sum believer. And this is coming from the guy who ordered strictly chicken strips and french fries at restaurants for the first 19 years of his life!
Full off of delicious dim sum, we strolled up the hill to Ming Lee Trading for one more quick stop. If you love Asian candies and snacks (or even if you’ve never had any), you’ll be sure to find the perfect sweet treat here. I went to satisfy my craving for lychee gummies and pocky sticks, specifically.
The photo below is just the street level part of the store…down in the basement you’ll find a warehouse filled with just about any Asian import your little heart desires.
And then, just like that, we were off once again on our next adventure!
I don’t recommend spending a lot of time in Chinatown. There really isn’t too much to see and it’s horribly touristy. But if you do nothing more than a quick pass through while in SF, please please make an extra stop for dim sum at Great Eastern. I promise you, you will not regret it.
Have you been to San Francisco? What other hidden gems have you found?
Read Next: 8 Hidden Gems in San Francisco (and where to find them)